Robert Durst to finally answer charge in 2000 L.A. slaying of Susan Berman

For more than a quarter-century, Robert Durst has slipped in and out of law enforcement’s crosshairs.

The real estate scion has been considered a suspect in the disappearance of his first wife in New York in 1982, the target of a years-long investigation into the 2000 execution-style slaying of a writer in Los Angeles and a defendant in a 2003 murder trial in Texas after he chopped up the body of a neighbor and threw the pieces into Galveston Bay.

In the case of his first wife, Durst was never charged. In the Texas slaying of a neighbor, he was acquitted by a jury.

But when Durst, 73, walks into a Los Angeles courtroom later Monday, prosecutors are hoping it will begin the final chapter in a cat-and-mouse game with various authorities that has spanned decades.

Durst will appear in the Airport Courthouse at 1:30 p.m. to answer a charge that he shot and killed Susan Berman, a confidant who had befriended him while they attended classes at UCLA. Prosecutors claim Durst murdered Berman in December 2000 because she was a witness to a crime. 

Berman, a writer whose father was a noted Las Vegas mafia figure, had acted as an unofficial spokesman for Durst after he became a suspect in the disappearance of his first wife, Kathleen. Berman was shot execution-style in her Benedict Canyon home after New York authorities reopened their investigation into Kathleen’s disappearance and were preparing to interview Berman.

Durst has denied any involvement in Berman’s killing or his wife’s vanishing.

The eccentric millionaire was arrested in connection with Berman’s death last year when FBI agents found him at a New Orleans hotel. When he was caught, agents discovered he had a firearm and marijuana.

Durst was sentenced to seven years and one month in prison on weapons charges in New Orleans. As part of the deal, he was allowed to be transferred to Los Angeles to face the murder charge. He was flown from Louisiana on Friday. 

On Monday, Durst will simply be asked to enter a plea. The actual trial, likely to be one of the most anticipated in the city’s history, will probably begin a year from now, according to Durst’s lead attorney, Dick DeGuerin.

Last year’s arrest marked the bizarre collision of a true-crime documentary and a years-long LAPD investigation into Berman’s killing. Durst, who had been tabloid fodder for years but faded from the spotlight after he was acquitted of murder in Texas in 2003, was launched back into the national consciousness when he became the subject of a six-part HBO documentary, “The Jinx.”

The series explored what happened to Durst’s first wife and Berman, as well as the complex legal drama that unfolded in his Galveston murder trial over the killing and then dismembering of his neighbor, Morris Black. DeGuerin, who will represent Durst again in the Berman trial, successfully argued that Durst killed Black in self-defense, dismembered the body and hurled the remains into a bay while traumatized over the fact that he had shot his neighbor.

In the series’ closing episodes, filmmakers revealed they had uncovered a letter that Durst sent to Berman one year before her death. The note had several similarities to an anonymous letter sent to Beverly Hills police in 2000 that tipped them off to Berman’s body. The envelopes on both misspelled "Beverly" as "Beverley.” 

Director Andrew Jarecki confronted Durst with the note in the series’ final scene. Durst, possibly unaware he was still wearing a live microphone, then disappeared into a nearby restroom and muttered what some have interpreted as a chilling confession.

“What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course." Durst muttered.

"There it is, you're caught," he said at another moment. "What a disaster."

Durst was arrested on a murder warrant issued in Berman’s killing on March 14, 2015, one day before the finale of “The Jinx” aired on HBO. 

The LAPD had been trying to link Durst to Berman’s death for years, and denied that Jarecki’s discovery of the letter played a pivotal role in the decision to arrest Durst last year.

“We based our actions based on the investigation and the evidence,” LAPD Deputy Chief Kirk Albanese told The Times last year. “We didn’t base anything we did on the HBO series.”

LAPD detectives had traveled to Galveston in April 2002, while Durst was awaiting trial in the murder case there, and obtained a court order that forced Durst to provide a handwriting sample that investigators could compare to the cadaver note.

Court records show that an LAPD handwriting analyst initially concluded it was "highly probable the letter was written by Berman’s former manager, Nyle Brenner. The records show that the analyst later changed his mind about Brenner and concluded that it was “probable” that Durst had written it. However, investigators had no way to prove he was in Los Angeles at the time of Berman’s death.

The case languished until 2014, when a detective with the LAPD’s elite Robbery-Homicide Division reinterviewed a lab supervisor involved in the initial forensic analysis who admitted she had not properly reviewed the analysis that initially pointed detectives toward Brenner, according to the records.

A fight over the validity of the various handwriting analyses will likely be a key issue at the trial.

It’s a legal battle Durst’s attorneys are fervent to begin.

“Bob Durst didn't kill Susan Berman and he doesn't know who did,” DeGuerin told The Times on Friday. “He's eager to get to trial to prove it.”

Follow @JamesQueallyLAT for crime and police news in California.

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